30 June 2011

Airlines - Reconfirm your flights and tickets

Lan Airline , Calama , Chile
  (photo by Armando Lobos)

Over two years ago I wrote a post recommending that passengers reconfirm airline reservations.

Two things occurred recently that signaled me that it was time to write a follow-up.

First, a client of mine went through a tortuous process of making reservations to Europe on United, which involved United and its code-share partner, and soon to be (maybe) happily-ever-after-merger-partner, Continental.

Second, another travel agent blogger whom I follow, Janice Hough, wrote a post about complications that ensued for one of her clients on a round-trip ticket that involved two carriers.

I just reread my original post from December ’08 and I like it.  I don’t think I need to cover the same turf in detail though I recommend you read it if you haven't already.  The next two paragraphs summarize its main point.

Airline flight schedules can and do change after you’ve bought tickets.  Even though the airline or the travel agency (on-line or bricks-and-mortar) that you booked through is supposed to notify you of schedule changes, the system doesn’t function perfectly.  You may never get calls or emails about schedule changes, or you may accidentally ignore them.

Call the airline – each airline if your trip involves multiple carriers – anywhere from a few days to a week or two prior to departure to make sure the schedule you have is correct.  If something has changed and it’s a problem, it’s much easier to straighten out over the phone ahead of time than at the airport on the day of departure.

But the business of code-shares and two airlines on a ticket bring up another element to reconfirm in addition to the flights themselves: your electronic ticket.

In nearly all cases now you no longer have a paper ticket but rather an electronic ticket stored in the reservation.  For the most part, electronic ticketing is convenient for both passengers and the airlines, because it has eliminated the need to put physical tickets in the hands of passengers prior to travel.

However the system is not foolproof, and in the same way that schedule change notifications are not foolproof.  There are multiple systems that an electronic ticket must navigate, and when more than one airline computer system is involved there is greater potential for a problem.

Here’s why.

Just because airline A codeshares with airline B it doesn’t mean that the airlines use the same computer system.

For example, if you booked a trip on United from San Francisco to Munich using United flight 1577 to Newark and United flight 9254 to Munich in fact you’d be on a Continental flight to Newark and a Lufthansa flight to Munich.  Neither Continental nor Lufthansa use the Apollo system that United does.  And if you booked the trip through the online travel agency Travelocity, the Sabre system would have been the one used by Travelocity to create the reservation and issue the tickets.  That’s three different pairs of electronic hands stirring the pot.

Now just because there are many systems through which the electronic ticket has to jump, it doesn’t mean things won’t work out fine, but it does the mean the potential for a problem increases. 

When you have an itinerary that consists of code-share flights you need to call each airline to reconfirm the schedule, and also to confirm that the electronic ticket is safe and sound in the reservation.  If there is a problem with the schedule or the ticket, contact the airline or travel agency  through which you purchased the ticket originally in order to get it resolved.

Code-share flights and ticketing are a kind of derivative of the interline ticketing system that has existed probably as long as commercial aviation.  I suspect interline ticketing was simply copied from the railroads, which ruled the transportation roost when airlines began operating in the 1930s.

In brief, it simply means that in an itinerary consisting of different airlines, one carrier collects the money and issues the tickets, eventually paying the other carriers through a clearing house.  Usually the carrier issuing the tickets is the first airline in the itinerary, but in the case of international travel it normally would be the first “over the water” carrier.  (If a travel agent issues the tickets it is no different; the agent is an intermediary, but the money still is collected by the first airline in the itinerary.)  Many of the newer, so-called “low cost carriers” either have no interline ticketing agreements (Allegiant) or very few (JetBlue).  Southwest currently has none, but did have one with the now defunct ATA and may in due time have one with Volaris, a low-cost Mexican carrier with which it now collaborates to transport passengers between the U.S. and Mexico.

In practice, airlines now and in the past would try to keep the passenger flying entirely on its own route system but that’s not always possible, especially for international travel, so multi-airline itineraries are the solution.  However the problem that inspired Janice Hough to write her post involved a simple domestic round-trip from Seattle to Washington, D.C., where the outbound (and ticketing carrier) was Alaska Airlines, but the return was on United, and the electronic ticket issued through Alaska for travel on United was not linked correctly to the United flight reservation.

Frankly, this system was simpler and more reliable in the age of paper tickets, but that age is not coming back.  Until (and if) electronic ticketing of code-share and multi-airline itineraries becomes foolproof, your best protection is to reconfirm all of the flights (and tickets) by phone with each carrier well before you begin your trip, and then again while en route.

An ounce of prevention…

15 June 2011

Car rental - Near the airport can beat at the airport

What is the price of convenience?

For many travelers it is priceless; they’ll pick the swiftest and least complicated way regardless of cost to get from point A to B.  Or more to the point of this post, from their arrival airport to their car rental.

For others it may depend on how great the price difference is, before they will consider picking up a car rental from an off-airport location that requires more effort to reach.

Lately I’ve been checking both airport and near-airport locations, either when a client asks me to or when I think it may produce significant savings with minimal disruption.

The price difference can range from nothing at all (or even more expensive from a non-airport location) to a modest difference to a huge difference.

Before giving some examples I’ll explain why the cost differences exist.

The reason is simple: it costs more for the car rental companies to do business at the airport because airports often impose taxes, user fees, or concession fees that the rental companies have to pass on to customers.

For many travelers – especially business travelers – the price difference is not enough to deter them from renting at the airport.  For business travelers time really is money, and the money that might be saved by renting off-airport isn’t worth it if it reduces the amount of work time available.

Leisure travelers have different agendas, and if time isn’t particularly precious then it may be worthwhile to compare the cost.  There is the potential to save money, which you could  better apply to the trip’s lodging and meals.

Here are examples, some of which are derived from my clients’ experiences.  Because I overwhelmingly book Hertz, I am using only Hertz examples but you will likely encounter similarities with other rental companies.  Off-airport locations cannot offer shuttle service to and from the airport, so customers must allow for the additional cost of a taxi.

San Francisco, compact car, 22-29 July, AAA discount:
Airport - $587.67
South San Francisco (about 3 miles from airport) - $212.30

Eugene, Ore., full size car, 10-17 August, AAA discount:
Airport - $336.69
Downtown Eugene (about 9 miles from airport) - $229.70 (see note below)

San Francisco, economy car, 12-13 July, AAA discount, one-way rental to Chico:
Airport - $183.05
South San Francisco (about 3 miles from airport) - $91.12

Chicago O’Hare, intermediate car, 3-10 August, AAA discount
Airport - $425.20
Des Plaines (about 3 miles from airport) - $251.04 (see note below)

Even though you pick up a car at an off-airport location, you may be able to return it to the airport at little or no additional cost.  In the Eugene example,  the price would be the same if booked with a return to the airport.  In the Chicago O’Hare example the price would only increase ten bucks to $261.12, almost certainly less than the cost of a taxi from Des Plaines to O’Hare.  The only way to know this is to try pricing it with the different options.  Obviously if you can get back to the airport using the rental car, it will save money (no need for a taxi ride back to the airport) and increase convenience.

Renting from an off-airport location will not always result in savings or in savings enough to justify some additional trouble and transportation cost to pick up the car.  I tested other cities and found no savings or actually higher prices for off-airport rentals.  Surprisingly in Las Vegas, a city where historically the price for an off-airport rental has been less expensive than an airport rental, I found the opposite to be true.  But nothing is constant in the travel industry which means that you need to do the research if you want to know for certain.  Because something is a particular way today means nothing tomorrow, a month from now, or a year from now.

In general I think you’ll find that when there is a savings it will more likely be for a rental of greater length – a week or longer.  Weekend rentals from airports can often be remarkably low even with the mandatory fees included.  Furthermore, if you’re traveling over a weekend, even a long weekend, you may not be interested in the extra time necessary to pick up and drop off a car at a remote location.

Interestingly, when researching rates a few months ago for a client booking a car in France I came across a similar situation but one that involved train stations.  I found a substantial savings was achieved for picking up a car from the Hertz location in downtown Aix-en-Provence compared with picking the car up at the Hertz facility at the TGV station a little outside of town.

As with airports in the U.S., the French railroad system imposes additional fees for doing business at the train station.  And as in the example for Eugene, Ore., the car picked up in the center of Aix-en-Provence could be returned to the TGV station for the same price.

To sum up: if you are surprised in a bad way by the cost of an airport car rental, consider investigating what the cost would be for renting from a nearby location.  You might be surprised, but in a good way.

11 June 2011

Running - Reno-Tahoe Odyssey 2011

RTO '11 wristband (photo by and of Ramon Ferguson)
For anyone who has done what I call a Big Relay, a 12-person, 36-leg, run day-and-night until you finish kind of thing modeled on Hood to Coast in Oregon, then you know it’s not normal to have things go smoothly leading up to the event.

It reminds me of a scene early in one of my favorite movies, “The Big Chill”, where three guys are looking around up in a dark attic, and one jokingly says, “It’s quiet – too quiet” and then all of a sudden bats fly out of nowhere to scare the daylights out of them.

I felt like things were “too quiet” leading up to my team’s running the seventh annual Reno-Tahoe Odyssey (RTO) on Friday-Saturday, 3-4 June.  None of my 11 teammates had laid the groundwork for dropping out by complaining for months of nagging injuries.  I didn’t hear anything about a last minute scheduling conflict.  No family emergencies occurred at the eleventh hour.

Yes, it was too quiet.  You see, I’ve done enough of these relays now to expect a last minute crisis, that forces me and my co-captain to have to find a replacement runner.  Not this year.

And the smooth lead-up to the relay on the part of my team, called “DNR”, was exactly how the relay itself unfolded.


The first teams begin at 7 a.m.
In Big Relays, 12 people are split into two groups of 6, each of whom occupies a van or large SUV.  The first van runs six legs, hands off to the next van which runs its 6 legs while the first van rests, and then the second van hands the baton (in this relay a yellow wristband) back to the first van, until after three cycles like this (a total of 36 legs of different distances and challenge) the team complete the relay.

Here's a link to the 178-mile course overview that includes links to maps of the individual legs.

DNR for the second year was a mixed (i.e. coed) team, which means that at least 6 of the runners must be women.  Van 1 consisted of Paul, Jessica, Tiffany, Ramon, Sonya, and April.  Van 1 included Lisa, Chris, Jody, Roseann, John, and me.

Our finish time was 23 hours, 12 minutes, 13 seconds, good for a fifth place finish in our mixed division (90 teams), and sixteenth among all teams (204 teams finished).

Paul Smith, one of Chico’s very best runners and my co-captain gets a good share of the credit for our performance.  He was our runner in Leg 4, considered the toughest of all of the 36 legs for both its distance and elevation changes.  Leg 4 is the only leg that is individually timed, and Paul finished Leg 4 fourth overall, only 9 seconds behind the two guys that tied for second and third, and was the first “flatlander”.  (This event is run from between 5,000 to 7500 feet, which can leave those who live at or close to sea level gasping for breath.)  Paul also ran a fourth leg when one of his van-mates suffered a bout of stomach distress prior to running her third leg.

Van 1 before its 2 p.m. start:
April, Paul, Jessica, Ramon, Tiffany, Sonya
(photo by Lisa Duke)
The number of registered teams was the highest in the RTO’s history: 209.  (Last year 155 took part.)  But in spite of the one-third increase in teams, the relay was not in the least bit negatively impacted.

If anything, in the first half of the relay the perspective of those of us in Van 2 was actually of seeing fewer teams than in previous years.  It was around the midway point that Van 1 mostly, but Van 2 also, began passing large numbers of slower teams.

How the handicapping works.

Van 2 in Virginia City after our showers and
before our last set of legs.  Clockwise from
bottom, 1960s album cover style: Roseann,
John, Chris, Jody, Greg, Lisa
(photo by Roseann Keegan)
Teams are handicapped based on predicted finish times with slower teams starting early – as early as 7 a.m. – and faster teams starting as late as 4 p.m.  DNR began at 2 p.m.  As the relay progresses the faster teams overtake and pass the slower ones.

The finish times themselves are not handicapped; they are measured in real time but team starting times are staggered, in order to ensure that all teams finish in a window of approximately 4 hours.  The race director can and does halt teams midway, stop the clock for them, and then restart them, if they are running significantly faster than they predicted.  This is unavoidable, because if they arrive too early at leg-to-leg hand-off locations or at the finish line they will find them not yet staffed by volunteers.

Up until the relay started, the weather was certainly in question.  Northern California and the Sierras  have experienced a prolonged wet and cool spring with snow falling in the mountains up until a day before the race.  On the drive to Reno the day before, I saw lots of snow.  And when van 2 drove west from Reno toward Truckee to meet Van 1 for the first hand-off, the surrounding mountains were clearly getting some form of precipitation.  But good fortune prevailed, and except for a good deal of wind on Friday, and a few brief sprinkles or very light rain during van 2’s first set of legs, the good conditions held.

DNR at the finish:
left to right: Sonya, Jessica, Roseann, Jody, April, Greg, Tiffany, Lisa, Paul, John, Chris, Ramon
(photograph by April Hennessy's camera)
Race director Eric Lerude, his assistant Shelly Demaray, wife Stephanie, cousin Rick, and army of volunteers have created an event that Reno can be proud of.  Lots of local teams and plenty of visitors now have a grand tradition of running the RTO.  Eric had planned to cap the event at 200 teams, but now may have to reconsider the cap, or participants will need to be sure to register early in order to assure a place.  A happy dilemma for Eric, to be sure.  (The first running of the RTO in ’05 attracted 36 teams.)

Night scene - one of Van 1's hand-offs along Hwy. 89 on Tahoe's west shore
(photo by April Hennessy)
For the first time ever, Eric and Stephanie actually drove the course during the relay to see events on the ground.  In previous years, they moved from the start of the race at Reno’s Wingfield Park to their home (aka the RTO command post) and then moved again to Idylwild Park for the finish.
Paul hands off to Ramon, Leg 28 to 29
(photo by April Hennessy)

This time, Shelly went to the command post, while Eric and Stephanie drove the course to see what Eric’s creation really looked like.  I’ll bet it looked nice to see more than 200 teams out there!

My own experience of the relay was that I ran legs 8, 19, and 35.  Leg 8 I have run in each and every RTO.  I was a little faster this year than last, and passed one runner and saw no others.

Leg 19 was a first for me.  It’s one of the tougher in the race, starting in California close to the casinos in Stateline, heading back into Nevada, and then making an abrupt right turn after a mile to ascend the steep Kingsbury Grade – about a 1000’ elevation gain in 3 miles.  Let’s just say I was glad to see the hand-off point, but it went well enough and I passed 6 runners.

Sat., 4 June - about 5 a.m. Jack's Valley Volunteer Fire Station,
hand-off from Leg 23 to 24, between Genoa and Carson City.
I've run Leg 35 for the past two years, and ran it again this year.  It was one of a number of legs that underwent major course changes this year, becoming shorter (6.2 miles instead of 7.5) and somewhat more scenic in its second half.  I passed about ten runners, but it was still a challenge, and I would like to do better the next time.  I think I need to work on the pre-fueling more thoughtfully for Leg 35 next year.

Fueling after the relay was no challenge at all.  Those from DNR who stayed over in Reno went out on Saturday night to Silver Peak Brewing in downtown Reno and had a great time.  I enjoyed one of the best stouts I have had anywhere, anytime.

Time to wrap up this post.  Thanks to my team for doing such a good job and being so easy to organize.  Shall we make it a date again in 2012?

Here are a few more pictures of the event.

Paul hands off to Ramon, Leg 4 to 5
(photo by April Hennessy)

Ramon hands off to Jessica, Leg 5 to 6
(photo by Tiffany McBroom)
Jessica hands off to Lisa, Leg 6 to 7
John on the downhill half of Leg 32 comng
down Geiger Grade (photo by Lisa Duke)

Jody waiting to get tagged by Jessica in Virginia City,
Leg 30 to 31 (photo by Lisa Duke)

Van 1 is done, time to celebrate at the Bucket of Blood Saloon
in Virginia City! (photo by Tiffany McBroom's camera)

Van 1 - Tiffany, Jessica, and Ramon lounging
(photo by April Hennessy)
Van 2 - John, Chris, Lisa and Jody engage in important
deliberations (photo by Roseann Keegan)
At the top of Geiger Grade in the middle of Leg 32
(photo by Lisa Duke)

The open road early in the relay
(photo by April Hennessy)

02 June 2011

Destinations - Bakersfield holiday at the Padre Hotel

You're thinking that this is going to a mean-spirited jab at a city that in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, "don't get no respect", but you would be wrong.

A couple of months ago one of my clients asked me to book him a night at the the Padre Hotel in Bakersfield.  Since I'd never heard of the Padre Hotel, I asked him for details.  My clients can be a great source of information about hotels I might never hear of or get to see.  He told me that it was an old hotel, totally renovated, with a modern vibe and a fine selection of ways to eat and drink.  Intrigued, I did further research on the hotel's website and decided I wanted to see for myself.

A long-planned early May trip to Fresno to visit friends lent itself well for an extension, so it was, "Bakersfield, here we come!".

First the nickel history of the hotel.

Opened in 1928 as the grand hotel and tallest building in downtown Bakersfield, the Padre changed hands in 1954 and was acquired by Milton "Spartacus" Miller.  Quite the colorful character, Miller became embroiled in a fight with the city over fire safety, and placed a phony missle on the hotel's roof allegedly aimed at city hall.  After 1966, the city mandated that rooms from the third floor and above could not be sold to guests though the bar remained open.  From reading snippets of history to write this post, the Padre Hotel bar was the center of alt-Bakersfield.

Miller died in 1999, but not before a deathbed marriage that led to the hotel's ownership being tied up in litigation until 2001.  A failed attempt to condo-ize the Padre led to its being acquired in 2008 by Eat.Drink.Sleep of San Diego.  Eat.Drink.Sleep poured money and effort into reviving the Padre to what it is now.

The hotel plays on - but does not mock -Bakersfield's reputation and reality of being kind of a Texas oilfield and cotton town dropped into California.  Room types range from the 40 Winks basic room, to the Maverick, all the way up to the Oil Baron Suite.  We were fortunate to get a Corner Pocket room on the top floor.  These are large rooms at the corners, with double windows that let in lots of light.  The bathroom was huge, and well-appointed with a rainwater shower and nice fixtures.

In addition to the rooms themselves, the hotel has five different ways you can leave money behind

Belvedere is the tony dinner restaurant.
Farmacy is a simple restaurant with made-to-order breakfasts and premade sandwiches.
Brimstone is a big ground floor bar + restaurant
Prospect is a swanky nightclub with drinks and appetizers
Prairie Fire is a second floor, rooftop bar that serves food from the same menu as Brimstone.

On Sunday evening we took advantage of a beautiful evening to enjoy a terrific blues/R&B band at Prairie Fire.  With a fine burger and a couple of Newcastles to wash it down, there was nothing not to enjoy.  And every table was taken when we left.  How many were locals and how many were hotel guests we didn't know, but it was a popular place.

The following morning we took our breakfast at Farmacy.  I think the Farmacy name is a pun on B'field's ag side, but they do push pain-killers in the form of spiked coffee so maybe that's it.  Whatever the point of the name, my breakfast was outstanding and the staff was really personable.  It's the simple format of order at the counter and your meals comes to you.

One thing was clear.  Farmacy is aimed not just at hotel guests but also locals who work in downtown because the prices were regular prices, not hotel prices.  And for a darn good meal.

This is a fine hotel that compares favorably with the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, though in a city where you wouldn't expect to find it.

Am I suggesting that you make a special trip to Bakersfield to experience it?  Not really, unless you live in close proximity such as Fresno.  (If you travel on business to Bakersfield you definitely need to skip your loyalty program chain and experience the Padre.)

What I am suggesting however is making it a stopover on the way to or from somewhere else.

Many people make long drives between areas or cities such as the Bay Area, Sacramento, and elsewhere in northern California to southern California, Las Vegas, Arizona, and so on.  Bakersfield is a good place to break a long trip.  Even if you're taking I-5, it's only a short detour east from I-5 to Bakersfield.  And if you're on 99 the Padre Hotel is less than 2 miles from the freeway.

Oh, sure, you could stay at a forgettable chain hotel but you'd really be missing out on a chance to stay at a historic hotel restored to its former glory but with a modern pulse.  And then you'd be able to surprise your friends with the story of your own Bakersfield holiday.

Downtown Bakersfield

I can't fib and tell you that downtown Bakersfield is a dynamic hub.  Like so many American cities, it has a hollowed-out downtown from where most commerce fled long ago to the suburbs of Anywhere USA.

But it's not awful, and it didn't appear dangerous.  And where else could you find a former Woolworth's that retained the lunch counter as a restaurant while the rest of it - the basement, too - is an antique store.  (At first we thought we'd discovered the last operating Woolworth's, since from the outside it looks like nothing had changed.)
Keith with the luncheonette behind
Is it 2011 or 1961?

Westchester - neighborhood beautiful

More surprising than the former Woolworth's is a lovely neighborhood known as Westchester only a few short blocks west of the downtown.  When I write "lovely" I don't mean it in a condescending way as in "lovely for Bakersfield", but rather in the same way I would consider well-to-do cities such as Atherton, Piedmont, or the "Fabulous Forties" area of Sacramento.

Yes, it's surprising that it is in Bakersfield, but it would be surprising to find in any American city of this size a pretty area like Westchester so close to a less-than-vibrant downtown.  In most other cities, a neighborhood like this would long ago have been blighted.

Density by design

I love multi-unit structures of the first half of the twentieth century where it seemed as much effort went into designing buildings occupied by ordinary people as into those of the wealthy.

In the couple of blocks between downtown Bakersfield and the Westchester neighborhood are two outstanding and meticulously maintained examples.

One is a take on the New England cottage style and the other on Santa Barbara mission style.  Both are designed around a central courtyard feature.